Deconstructing Delhiites
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Deconstructing Delhiites

The demolition of slums has got some mention in the press, but perhaps for a day; attention has gone back to the sealing of shops.

india Updated: Apr 25, 2006 02:01 IST

Bureaucrats, particularly former bureaucrats, invite derision, even anger, if they venture to comment on something like social injustice, inequality before the law, human suffering and other such matters on which everybody else can wax eloquent and lose themselves in self-admiring rhetoric. But let a former civil servant offer his opinion on any such matter and the reaction is immediate. “And what did you do about it when you were a burra sahib,” is the most common sneer, and it doesn’t matter if you had spent most of your years looking after matters to do with education and were commenting on irrigation problems. Having been in government means you were responsible for everything, individually and collectively, but most often individually.

Ask any former bureaucrat if he’s ever been cornered at a function or a social gathering and made to answer for all the ills that afflict society at different levels and the hunted look on his face will speak for itself. The general conviction is once a bureaucrat, always a bureaucrat. You have no business expressing any concern that is remotely moral, or venturing to sympathise with human suffering of any kind; your job is always to rationalise irrational decisions, explain inhuman action in terms of policies, laws and rules.

I mention all this as I set out, most diffidently, to mention something that must have been noticed by many in recent weeks. We have seen the Municipal Corporation of Delhi take some kind of action to implement stern orders passed by the highest courts in the land to remove illegally built structures. We have also seen the media highlight the reaction of those affected-- from covering havans performed by fashion designers to tearfully angry owners holding banners of some kind and shouting. There have been deprecating sound bites from some officials in the corporation and some furious ones from those affected by demolitions on how much they have paid engineers of the MCD to get their building plans passed.

That was Act I. Act II has now begun with the sealing of shops that have come up in exclusively residential areas, and again there has been the public expression of outrage and indignation dutifully caught on camera by our very busy news channels and newspapers, and again the rather sheepish comments by some officials on the drive to seal such shops and how it will continue and so on. And the strident protests of shopkeepers have made political parties move quickly to postures of protest, demanding a whole lot of remedial measures including the promulgation of an ordinance to regularise the shops which are being sealed.

As a former bureaucrat, I have to tread rather carefully here. But I would venture to point to something else that has been going on at the same time, something that has received very little attention from either the media or political parties. This has been the demolition of slums on the banks of the Yamuna. There has been some mention of it in the press, but perhaps for a day; attention has gone back to the sealing of shops, away from the continuing demolition, from the stream of people leaving with their belongings packed into bundles, climbing into trucks to move away, into oblivion. No havans here, so celebrities weeping tears of righteous indignation, no angry sound bites, nothing. Just an exodus, not orderly by any means, but resigned, from places that these slum-dwellers had called home for years.

Now, far be it for me to make any comment on these two events, but I think I can point out that both involve the removal of illegal structures that have been in existence years together, and were not merely tolerated but virtually licensed to exist because those using them paid some people in authority hush money. In both cases the present removal or sealing is a result of orders passed by courts and the courts requiring that the MCD report on the action taken on these orders. The difference is in the media attention and the concern voiced by political parties for one lot, the shopkeepers. There have been some protests about the demolition of the slums by NGOs working there, but they haven’t really got much attention.

The other big difference is that those who lived in the jhuggis beside the Yamuna were in the main part of the unorganised sector-- hawkers, vendors, people who repaired cycles or tyres, or worked as labour in different places, and their womenfolk were maids or vegetable sellers. I have naturally no means of knowing just what they did but the authorities certainly have a pretty clear idea of it-- they may even have exact figures.

The point isn’t that so much as whether, being in the unorganised sector, they will be able to find that kind of work, and livelihood, wherever they have been provided alternative space.

It really is something very simple. The main concern when relocating these people isn’t so much giving them a place to stay but giving them ‘the same or nearly the same’ opportunities of earning a living. The arguments that if they can’t find something to do they had better go back where they came from, and that this is one way to discourage migration from the villages won’t really wash; the fact is they are here, and they aren’t going back where they came from. The other argument-- provide useful, lucrative forms of employment in the villages so that those staying there won’t want to come to the city is a better one, but it still won’t do to solve the present problem: work for those relocated, lucrative work, and, of course, some reasonable place to live in.

There seems to be little doubt that something will be done for all those well to do occupiers of buildings that violate building laws or have been built on land that is not rightfully the owner’s, and for all the shopkeepers whose shops have been sealed. The issue is certainly rather complex and can’t be seen in black and white terms. But a serious attempt to find a solution or a remedy that provides those affected some relief will certainly be made; there simply is too much indignation and a very strong feeling that those affected are being made victims of scheming, dishonest individuals in the corporation, the Delhi Development Authority and other bodies.

Whether anything will be done for the families evicted from the jhuggis is not that clear. For one thing, some kind of alternative places may well have been provided. What that is doesn’t seem to be a very major concern either to the media or to political parties as a whole. Some noises have been made, but they have been, compared to the other noises made when 1 MG Road was broken up and when shops were sealed, melodious and gentle, like a string quartet.

I mention these as facts, be it noted, because it is far more comforting to have a former bureaucrat explain or rationalise, and not express indignation at an instance of something that is ugly and menacing in its brazenly unjust assumptions-- that one set of people in the city can be the focus of unctuous, concerned attention by the media and political powers, while another set, also living in the same city is given a kind of vague, general sympathy but of the you-had-it-coming kind. Only because the latter are poor and the former part of the comfortable middle-class in which we move and have our being. ‘It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity’-- but, no, persons such as I are not permitted quotations, particularly from foreign authors.

Perhaps, in some ministry, a file can be started on this subject on the existence of two cities in one, in which the concern for one lot of citizens and the unconcern for another, can be considered. That, you will agree, is a suggestion worthy of a former babu.

First Published: Apr 25, 2006 02:01 IST